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Baylor out to catch realignment ride, not prevent the inevitable

As the season opened last weekend, the vibe in central Texas was weird. Here was Baylor, under the lights on a Friday night, notching what felt like an important victory. Led by junior quarterback Robert Griffin III, the Bears' win in a wild thriller over TCU was easily the best game of the opening weekend. When it was over, fans turned the old stadium into a mosh pit, and the players celebrated along with them, and the scene was everything we love about college football.

No one should have been surprised when a Web page popped up just a few days later with a simple, catchy message:

"Don't Mess With Texas Football."

What, you thought we were talking Heisman? RGIII is sublime. But there's a reason why even on a warm Texas night, the mood among Baylor insiders was subdued. Earlier that day, Oklahoma's president had gone on the record, talking boldly of his school's flirtation with leaving the Big 12. If it sounded like the death knell for the league, well, that's how the Bears took it, too. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are courting the Pac-12, a reversal from last year, when Larry Scott did the asking. Texas might be interested as well, which would mean Texas Tech would also get an invitation to the first superconference.

Baylor would get left out.

This is why Wednesday morning, Texas A&M's planned announcement of its move to the SEC was put on hold; Baylor had threatened to sue the SEC and commissioner Mike Slive for "tortious interference." By Wednesday afternoon, the Waco Tribune was reporting five more schools had joined Baylor in retaining their rights to sue, but their ultimate goal was to convince Oklahoma to remain in the league. Yeah, it's chaotic. And the desperate campaign to somehow hold together the Big 12 is quixotic. But we shouldn't blame the Bears for trying.

Back to the Web page on Baylor's official site. Its message is simple:

Nothing is more beloved in Texas than Texas football. Entire towns travel to neighboring communities on Friday nights as rivals meet under the Friday night lights; Saturday mornings find families rushing out to pee wee football games and spending their afternoons with friends tailgating or watching some of the most historic and storied football rivalries in the nation; Sunday afternoons see families gathered in living rooms across the state to cheer on the Cowboys or the Texans.

Football in Texas is more than a passing interest, it is a part of the fabric of this great state.

• Will Texans stand by and watch hundred-year-old rivalries be cast aside as the state's largest universities align themselves with other states across the country?

• Will Texans sit and watch as Texas' flagship universities pledge their loyalties to other states?

• Will Texans stand by as our most promising student athletes are lured out of Texas by new rivals?

• Will Texans watch as our most precious resources -- the great minds of the next generation -- are exported to new conference institutions?

Texans must stand up and call the leadership of the University of Texas, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech to clear-headed thinking about the state's future. Texas' flagship institutions of higher learning are the guardians of the state's future -- their loyalties must first be to Texas and to her citizens. Ask these leaders to take a stand for Texas and to stop this madness that will lead to the dissolution of the Big 12 and the end of an era for Texas.

If you're interested enough to "Take a Stand Now," a click sends you to a page with links to e-mail addresses for the boards of regents and presidents of Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech. Again, no one should blame Baylor for acting in its own interest. But don't be confused; that's exactly what this is.

Seventeen years ago, the Bears didn't seem to mind the mess created when the Big 12 formed. After Arkansas' departure a couple of years earlier, the Southwest Conference consisted of eight Texas schools. Four didn't make the cut for the new league.

Baylor, meanwhile, wedged its way in with the help of considerable political muscle. And good for the Bears, even if it never worked out all that well on the football field. As the Houston Chronicle's Richard Justice points out, Baylor has won more than one conference game just four times, is 2-28 against Oklahoma and Texas and perennially ranks last in the conference in attendance.

But by comparison, check how things have gone for Houston, Rice, SMU and TCU. Only TCU, which is set to move into the Big East in 2012, has thrived -- and the Horned Frogs have been on a long slog to get into an AQ league.

The era of the superconference now seems inevitable, and consolidation is coming much sooner than anyone expected. The shift will create more separation between the haves and have-nots. And a few haves will get left out, which means they'll become have-nots. It's not a fun time for college sports.

Fifteen months ago, when it looked as though Scott was about to slice the Big 12 in half, I ran into an administrator from a Big 12 North school. He knew what was coming, and what it might mean. "We're going to Conference USA," he moaned. The Mountain West was more likely, but his point remained. I felt sorry for him. Even when it didn't happen last summer, we all understood it would happen sometime, and that it would create a much wider chasm than already exists.

As a private school, Baylor doesn't have anything close to the same resources as most of its Big 12 peers. But the difference in revenue -- and less tangibly, in exposure and prestige -- from the Big 12 to, say, the Mountain West is huge. And also, though it's highly unlikely this actually comes into play with Baylor football, there's BCS AQ status to be considered.

That's why Baylor didn't take the threat of Pac-10 expansion lightly in 2010. In the final days of Scott's push, when it appeared the Pac-16 was about to become reality, I was among several writers who received an e-mail suggesting Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw would love to discuss expansion, right now. It was a Saturday night, about 9 p.m. Texas time. McCaw's cell number was provided.

Yeah, the Bears were working hard. At that time, though, the goal at least in part was to be included in the move westward. The other six Big 12 schools that would have been left behind? Too bad. There has been a similar effort ongoing these last few weeks, mostly underground. This time around, the push is to prevent anyone else from going.

It's far more likely Baylor will only delay the departures. The Big 12 appears doomed, no matter what. If not now, soon. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State seem dead-set on the Pac-12 (The Oklahoman of Oklahoma City reported Saturday the move was the Sooners' "sole focus"). Until the SEC expands, the Pac-12 won't -- but it's ready to respond. Without Oklahoma, the league probably won't seem viable to Texas.

Which leads to this quick thought: If Baylor really cares about Texas football, why not get the old band back together? Call Texas and Texas A&M. Add Houston, Rice and SMU. Convince TCU that the newly formed Big Tex Conference (Lone Star is taken) -- no, let's call it the Southwest Conference -- makes more sense than the Big East. Heck, why not add UTEP and North Texas? No, it doesn't really make much sense, and there's about, oh, zero chance it happens.

Maybe Baylor succeeds in holding the Big 12 together -- against the members' will -- for just a little longer. Probably not. In the bigger picture, any campaign by any entity to hold off superconferences seems doomed to fail. "Some things," Oklahoma president David Boren told The Oklahoman, "are trends beyond the control of any one university." But Baylor's goal isn't to prevent the inevitable; it's to catch the ride.

As kickoff loomed last week, we yearned for a respite from all the offseason turmoil and, more recently, the realignment talk. Behind Griffin's spectacular performance, Baylor pulled off a nice upset and moved into the AP Top 25 at No. 20. It's the Bears' highest ranking in 20 years. It should have been a great conversation piece: a Heisman run and Baylor's push for relevance after so many dismal seasons in the Big 12's cellar. Instead, even as the Bears beat an old rival-turned-modern-power, it wasn't hard to see the role reversal.

As the superconference era begins, TCU is headed for AQ status. Baylor is tilting at windmills, clawing desperately to preserve its athletic future.

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